World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki begins the quest for her first Grand Slam this week when she squares off against the best women in the game at the Australian Open.
Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova leads the charge from the other end of the draw, while Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova headline their respective quarters.
An ongoing illness has forced Venus Williams to withdraw, but sister Serena is always a threat to make a deep run to the second week of a major regardless of who she draws or in what order.
Hometown favorite Sam Stosur is also likely to make it to the final eight, while Top 10 seeds, including Na Li and Vera Zvonareva, have the talent to win it all.
Also keep an eye out for some of the higher unseeded players, like Ksenia Pervak, Jarmila Gajdosova and Shahar Peer
Caroline Wozniacki's Quarter
Caroline Wozniacki (1)
Na Li (5)
Kim Clijsters (11)
Jelena Jankovic (13)
Daniela Hantuchova (20)
Lucie Safarova (24)
Anabel Medina Garrigues (26)
Monica Niculescu (31)
Most likely to advance: Caroline Wozniacki
Upset potential: Ksenia Pervak
Top seed Caroline Wozniacki should have little trouble advancing through the first three rounds of the contest. She meets Anastasia Rodionova, a more more accomplished doubles player than a singles threat, in her opening match, the winner of Aussie Ashleigh Barty and Anna Tatishvili in the second round and probably Romanian Monica Niculescu after that if the seeds win out.
After that, however, things are not as straightforward from there.
Wozniacki, still yet to win a Grand Slam final, will likely meet 13th-seeded Serbian Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round, followed by either No. 5 Na Li or Kim Clijsters (11) in the quarters. Wozniacki has won her last three meetings with Jankovic (two of which were on clay), but she is 3-4 against the 26-year-old since 2008.
Similarly, Wozniacki has also struggled against Li. She is 1-3 lifetime, including loses in the semis here last year, and back-to-back events in Sydney and Melbourne in 2010. Should Wozniacki meet Clijsters instead, she will need her first ever win against the world No. 12 if she hopes to play in the second week.
She has stated that she's healthy, so hopefully, there will be no need for excuses this time around.
Last year's runner-up, Li has slipped from prominence since her Roland Garros triumph last spring, losing in the second round of Wimbledon and the first round of the US Open. Playing in her seventh Australian Open, Li will face Kazakhstani left-hander Ksenia Pervak in the first round, giving her arguably the toughest start of any of the seeds.
Pervak is ranked 40th in the world, and she has fond memories at Melbourne Park after defeating Laura Robson here in the final of the juniors back in 2009. Now in the main draw, Pervak will have to hope the injury that forced her to retire against Francesca Schiavone in Sydney on New Year's Day is behind her.
Pervak had wins over Top 50 players, including Julia Goerges (Monterrey), Shahar Peer and Andrea Petkovic (Wimbledon) last year, and she pushed the likes of Daniela Hantuchova (Linz), Klara Zakopalova (Brussels) and Petra Kvitova (Brisbane) to three sets in defeat.
Elsewhere in the quarter, Clijsters faces a qualifier in the first round and the winner of Stephanie Foretz Gacon and Brit Elena Baltacha in the second. Neither should pose a threat. Daniela Hantuchova (20) will have to be careful to avoid slipping up against Aranxta Rus in the second round, and Anabel Medina Garrigues will need to get off to a quick start if she has aspirations of meeting Li in the third.
Medina Garrigues has stumbled at the first hurdle here the last couple years, but she has started to regain some of the form that lifted her into the Top 20 just two years ago. Eva Birnerova shouldn't worry her too much, but don't be surprised if thi is the big upset of the quarter.
Victoria Azarenka's Quarter
Victoria Azarenka (3)
Agnieszka Radwanska (8)
Francesca Schiavone (10)
Shuai Peng (16)
Flavia Pennetta (19)
Julia Goerges (22)
Yanina Wickmayer (28)
Petra Cetkovska (32)
Most likely to advance: Victoria Azarenka
Upset potential: Ayumi Morita over Petra Cetkovska in Round 1, Txvetana Pironkova over Agnieszka Radwanska in Round 3.
Victoria Azarenka is the top seed is the second quarter of the draw. I like her chances of making a deep run to the second week, but a quarterfinal showdown with eight seed Agnieszka Radwanska could provide a very real banana skin.
The six-foot, 22-year-old Azarenka is already off to a good start in 2012, having defeated Marion Bartoli, Agnieszka and Na Li—three Top-10 players—in succession to triumph in Sydney. I doubt she will drop a set to Aussie Open first-timer Heather Watson in her opener or the winner of Casey Dellacqua or Bojana Jovanovski in the second.
Azarenka has a pretty solid all-court game, and she has the potential to do damage from both flanks. She is a combined 16-8 against the other seeds in her quarter, but she will only have to face a maximum of three of them in reaching the quarters.
If she does meet Radwanska, it could be the best match of the first week. Their last three encounters on hard courts have gone the distance, and Radwanska will be keen to avenge a loss in the semis in Sydney earlier this month, a match which saw her take the opening set before falling away.
This all assumes, of course, that Radwanska gets past American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Round 1. The Minneapolis native is hovering on the edge of the world's Top 50 again, although she has never quite lived up to the potential she showed back in 2008.
That section of the draw is actually loaded past the second round, where Radwanska could face Yanina Wickmayer (28). But with Galina Voskoboeva (ranked 55), Tsvetana Pironkova (ranked 48) and Sania Mirza (one of the best volleyers in the game) all in that foursome, you could make a case for any of them to advance.
Elsewhere, Francesca Schiavone (10) and Shuai Peng (16) should cost through openers against Laura Pous-Tio and Aravane Rezai respectively, but German No. 22 seed Julia Goerges is no more than a 60-40 favorite to topple Slovakian Polona Hercog.
Hercog has risen in the rankings every year since turning pro back in 2006, and she has been a stable fixture of the world's Top 100 for three years now.
Up to No. 35, a good run in Melbourne in her third year down under could help her crack the elite 32 and maybe give her a prized spot as a seed at Roland Garros.
Maria Sharapova's Quarter
Maria Sharapova (4)
Vera Zvonareva (7)
Serena Williams (12)
Sabine Lisicki (14)
Dominika Cibulkova (17)
Svetlana uznetsova (18)
Kaia Kanepi (25)
Angelique Kerber (30)
Most likely to advance: Vera Zvonareva, assuming she can get past Serena Williams.
Upset potential: Shahar Peer
Maria Sharapova appeared to get back on track last year, making it to the fourth round in three of the four Grand Slam events for the first time since 2007.
Sharapova has been to the final in Melbourne twice before, and she'll be looking to improve on her 2011 result, which saw her crash out to Andrea Petkovic in straight sets.
A winner of 24 career titles, the glamor girl of women's tennis meets Argentine 26-year-old Gisela Dulko in Round 1. Dulko won their last encounter back in '09, but now that Sharapova is back on the rise, I don't see an upset on the cards.
Angelique Kerber (30) is the likely third-round opponent for Sharapova, but only if she defeats Bojana Bobusic and the winner of Elena Vesnina and Stephanie Dubois. Vesnina is banging on the Top 50 door once again, but she was on the verge of a Top 20 sot not so long ago, so don't count her out. Vesnina has gone out at the first-round stage in eight of her last nine majors, including three consecutive losses in her opener down under, but she is capable of turning the tables on the No. 30 seed.
Likewise, No. 14 seed Sabine Lisicki is not guaranteed an easy passage into Week 2. Stephanie Voegele shouldn't pose too many challenges in her opener, but unseeded Shahar Peer is a real threat in the second round. She was ranked 11th in the world this time last year, but four straight first-round losses in the middle of the summer—including at Roland Garros and Wimbledon—saw her drop out of the Top 32 by the end of the season.
I like Svetlana Kuznetsova's chances of making it to the fourth round, and I wouldn't be too shocked if she defeated Sharapova to book her place in the quarters.
In the top half of Sharapova's quarter, seventh seed Vera Zvonareva will aim to make it to her third semifinal in the last four years.
She only dropped one set before losing 6-3, 6-3 to Kim Clijsters 12 months ago, and I don't see her stumbling this year in her first three matches. No. 12 seed Serena Williams, however, lurks as a potential fourth-round opponent, and that spells trouble for former world No. 2 Zvonareva.
While the pair have never met in Melbourne, Williams has won three of their last four encounters. She is 6-2 lifetime and 3-0 in majors.
Williams may not be the dominant force she once was, but I guarantee that nobody in the game wants to face her in a Slam. This could be the best battle of the championship, and it will come seven days before the silverware is decided.
Elsewhere in the top part of this quarter, Dominika Cibulkova (17) is scheduled to meet Williams in Round 3, assuming she makes light work of Magdalena Rybarikova.
Petra Kvitova's Quarter
Petra Kvitova (2)
Sam Stosur (6)
Marion Bartoli (9)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (15)
Ana Ivanovic (21)
Roberta Vinci (23)
Maria Kirilenko (27)
Nadia Petrova (29)
Most likely to advance: Sam Stosur
Upset potential: Jarmila Gajdosova, Klara Zakopalova
Left-hander Petra Kvitova finally broke through in 2011, climbing first into the Top 32 and then all the way up the rankings to No. 2. She made it to the quarterfinals here last year, and that sparked an impressive run of fine form that saw her capture her first major at Wimbledon.
Vera Dushevina shouldn't test her too much, and Kvitova should sweep Russian Maria Kirilenko or Jarmila Gajdosova aside in the third round. I'd like to see her face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (15) in the fourth round, but the real mouth-watering contest would be against crowd favorite Sam Stosur in the last eight.
That first-round match between Kirilenko (27) and Gajdosova is a toss-up. The Slovakian-born 24-year-old now lives in Melbourne, and she will have that home-town support on her side. She's unseeded, but don't let that fool you. She ended the 2011 season at 33 in the world—one spot away from being handed a seed here in Australia—and just last year, she was as high as 25th.
Gajdosova won their only matchup last year, and she's my bet to triumph in the battle of the 24-year-olds.
No. 15 seed Pavlyuchenko could also be in trouble. Klara Zakopalova is a very tough unseeded opponent to draw in the first round. The 29-year-old has showed more consistency over the last two seasons than at any other point in her career, and she recorded victories over Marion Bartoli, Na Li, Lucie Safarova, Flavia Pennetta, Shahar Peer and Nadia Petrova—all Top 32 women—last year alone.
Even if Pavlyuchenkova does advance into the second round, Vania King, another tough match, probably awaits.
In Stosur's half of this bottom quarter, Marion Bartoli is the big threat to stop the Aussie making the quarters. Jelena Dokic could cause an upset in Round 2, but Bartoli likely won't be tested until she meets Italian Roberta Vinci in Round 3.
As for Stosur herself, Sorana Cirstea awaits in the opener. It's not the easiest start to a Slam, but Stosur should advance. From there, it's easy sailing to the third round and, I would predict, into the fourth. On a sold-out show court, a Stosur-Petrova battle would be fun to watch. The Gold Coast native won both contests last year, including in the round of 32 on her way to the US Open title, but Petrova matches up well and would cause problems.
Stosur has never made it past the fourth round here. If she plays well and if Bartoli slips up at all, this could be her year to win it all at home.